I’m so delighted to host Ellen Birkett Morris. I first met Ellen when a dear writer friend invited me to her writer’s group. “These women are serious writers,” she told me, “and they’re really good.”
That turned out to be an understatement! Ellen was the group’s unofficial leader, and it didn’t take me long to fall in love with her writing. Ellen’s work is provocative and deeply moving. She is a master at delving into the emotional lives of her characters, and I’ve learned so much from her. Below are her responses to my interview questions, followed by her contact information, bio, and buy links.
Your recently published collection of short stories, Lost Girls, has received rave reviews. Can you tell us about Lost Girls and what inspired you to write these stories?
They originally began as a collection of linked stories about how a male photographer from the north is changed by the experience of photographing the residents of the small town of Slocum in Eastern Kentucky. I realized I didn’t know him well enough, but I knew the women in those photos. I knew their struggle, pain and triumph. They were the heart of the story. So I took him out and found that I had a full collection of stories that deal with the lives of women and girls from young to old.
What books/authors especially inspired you as a child? Did you always know you wanted to write yourself?
I love Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. All writers are spies. That is probably why I loved Harriet so much. I love anything by E.B. White. His prose is so clean and beautiful. I also liked all the Ramona books. Ramona felt things deeply, even when it was inconvenient for those around her. I wrote as a child and still have those pages bound in ribbon in a drawer.
When did you decide to pursue writing seriously? Can you tell us about your path to your first publication?
I started my career as a freelance journalist writing about a range of things, health, entertainment, and women’s issues. I was in my mid-thirties when I mustered my courage to take on creative writing. I started working on a children’s book, which was not a great fit for me. I moved on to poetry, short stories and now novels. I began small with publications in tiny journals. My first Pushcart nomination in poetry came from a community college journal in California. As I gained confidence, I submitted to better journals. I ended up with work in Antioch Review and South Carolina Review.
You are not only an award-winning writer but a multi-genre one whose work includes poetry, essays, feature articles, short stories, and novels. Of these, which do you enjoy working on the most?
I love them all. Poetry requires precision of image and word choice. Essays require me to capture how my thoughts work and how I make sense of the world. Articles are like working a puzzle. I gather material and see how the pieces best fit together. Short stories allow me to dip into peak moments and capture the point in time when a character’s awareness changes. Novels are like a marathon, requiring me to cover lots of ground and pace myself.
For your fiction, how much of your plots and characters are drawn from real life?
Both of my novels were inspired by news stories (children with past lives and celestial mysteries). The title story of my collection Lost Girls was inspired by the kidnapping of a girl in my neighborhood when I was eighteen. Those real-life events may serve as inspiration, as a prism through which a character (who is not me) sees the world. Many of the plots are completely made up. I’ve never had or lost a child, had a lesbian love affair, been abused or played the drums.
Do you consider yourself a plotter, pantser, or somewhere in-between?
Pantser city. I don’t outline. But I do love it when historical events or a logical sequence help me along by providing a roadmap of where to go next. I think the unconscious does so much of the work for us and I want to be open to what might come. This means I have to do a lot of connecting the dots in revision.
You earned your MFA in Writing. How did your graduate program help you grow as a writer, and do you recommend pursuing an MFA to aspiring writers?
If I had it to do over I would join a program fulltime and get the benefit of building relationships over time. That said, I had some wonderful teachers, read great stuff, met colleagues that I stay in touch with to this day. I think writing can be done without a program, but you have to be dedicated to learning and maintaining a weekly practice.
What are you currently working on writing-wise?
I am working on novel revisions and contemplating my next project. I want to return to short stories and see how working on novels has influenced my work.
When you’re not writing, what do you especially enjoy doing?
I love to cook, watch movies, and play board games with my husband. I am an avid reader.
Anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself and/or your books—or questions I didn’t ask that you wish I had?
I think the question of why we do what we do is important. I wrote this book to reach women like myself, to make them feel something and to offer solace and amusement. I hope Lost Girls has done that.
Ellen Birkett Morris is the author of Lost Girls, a collection of short stories called “a varied set of tales from a skilled practitioner of the short form” by Kirkus Reviews. Her fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, Antioch Review, Notre Dame Review, South Carolina Review, and Santa Fe Literary Review, among other journals. She is a winner of the Bevel Summers Prize for short fiction. Morris is a recipient of a 2013 Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council.